Scaramouche is set at the beginning of the French Revolution and tells the story of Andre-Louis Moreau, a young lawyer from Britanny who has been brought up by his godfather, a man who many people believe is really his father. Andre-Louis has little interest in politics until his friend Philippe, who is passionate about the revolutionary cause, is provoked into fighting a duel with the Marquis de La Tour d’Azyr. It’s a duel Philippe has no chance of winning and when he is killed by the Marquis, Andre-Louis considers it to be murder.
Deciding that his friend’s voice must not be silenced, Andre-Louis speaks out against the privileged classes but when his speeches turn out to be much more successful than he expected, he finds himself in trouble with the law and is forced to run for his life. Joining a group of travelling actors, he takes the role of Scaramouche and discovers he has a natural talent for both acting and writing plays. First as Scaramouche, then as a fencing master and a politician, Andre-Louis sets in motion a plan for taking revenge on the man who killed Philippe.
From the wonderful opening line of this 1921 novel by Rafael Sabatini (“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad”) I could tell I was going to love Scaramouche! And I did – it’s one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. The story involves a bit of everything: action, romance, history, political intrigue, humour and adventure.
Some readers might find Andre-Louis too unbelievable as a character, in the way he seems to succeed at almost everything he does, whether it’s acting, writing, orating or fencing, as well as being clever, courageous, quick-witted and charismatic. I can definitely understand this point of view, but it wasn’t really a problem for me. I thought he was a great character and I was able to suspend disbelief enough to just accept that he was good at everything! And he’s not perfect; he can be difficult to like at times and is often described by other characters as heartless (though we, as the reader, know that sometimes he’s putting on an act and not showing his true feelings). He does have flaws, he makes mistakes and his motives are not always easy to understand. His enemy, the Marquis, is another interesting character with more depth than he appears to have at first and some good qualities as well as bad ones – he’s more than just a stereotypical villain.
My favourite part of the book was the section in the middle where Andre-Louis joins the troupe of Commedia dell’Arte actors. Before I read this book I admit that I would have been unable to explain exactly what Commedia dell’Arte involved; now I know that it’s a form of improvisational theatre where the actors perform ‘scenarios’ or sketches, with each member of the group taking on one specific role. The best known of the stock characters found in Commedia dell’Arte, all of which have their own costumes and characteristics, include Harlequin, Pierrot, Pantaloon, Columbine and Scaramouche, who Wikipedia describes as a ‘roguish clown character’. Andre-Louis seems to identify with the character so much that even when he’s not acting he still sometimes thinks of himself as ‘Scaramouche’.
The events leading up to the French Revolution are central to the plot but this aspect of the book never became too overwhelming so if you don’t have much knowledge of the historical background it shouldn’t be a problem. There’s a good balance of historical detail and swashbuckling action, and there’s always something happening: a swordfight, a last-minute escape or a dramatic revelation. The fencing and duelling scenes are well written though I wished I understood all the terminology so I could fully appreciate Andre-Louis’ skill!
I’m not sure why it never occurred to me before to read Sabatini, considering he’s often compared to Alexandre Dumas, who I love. Having now read this book, I can understand the comparisons. Scaramouche has a lot in common with The Count of Monte Cristo, one of my favourite novels of all time (they are both historical adventure novels with a French setting, both have vengeance and justice as major themes and the character of Andre-Louis reminded me in some ways of Edmond Dantes). If you like Dumas or other books of this type, then I would highly recommend giving Scaramouche a try. I’ll definitely be reading more of Sabatini’s books – Captain Blood next, I think.